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May 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

What Is "Alsatian-Style" Pinot Gris?

by Norm Roby

  • The lingering confusion about Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio (see page 38) has left many people wondering what is the difference.
  • While it is fair to talk about an Alsatian style of Riesling or Gewürztraminer, there is nothing consistent about Alsatian Pinot Gris.
  • Controversy has arisen in Alsace over increasingly opulent Pinot Gris wines, made to achieve high scores rather than be food-friendly like traditional, drier versions.
Pinot Gris was first brought to my attention by David Lett of Oregon's Eyrie Vineyard. No fan of Oregon Chardonnay or any New World Chardonnay, the outspoken Lett firmly believed in the grape's potential to produce a first-class white wine in Oregon's climate. Though Pinot Gris had many synonyms, Lett knew it was as Burgundian at heart as he was, and began planting it 1965.

In 1988, Lett uncorked several vintages for me during a visit, and from then on, I too became a fan. By the mid-1980s, Eyrie had also produced enough to show its neighbors what the grape could do. A decade later, Pinot Gris had evolved to become "the" white wine of Oregon.

Now known in Burgundy as Pinot Beurot, Pinot Gris is a fascinating grape with a variety of monikers and a rich folklore. Hugh Johnson once noted that white Volnay from the late 18th century was likely made from Pinot Gris. One of the earliest names in France for this mutation of Pinot Noir was Fromenteau, and it seems to have been dispersed over Eastern Europe under that name. In 1568, it officially arrived in Alsace, thanks to a fellow named Lazare de Schwendi, who was returning victorious from some battleground and picked up cuttings en route in Tokaij before heading home. For decades, Alsatians called the grape and wine Tokay d'Alsace.

What Is
A mutation of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris has a long history in Alsace, but not a consistent style.
Whether Oregon's success with Pinot Gris encouraged imports of Italian Pinot Grigio or vice-versa, the fact is that many Californian winemakers spotted the trend and jumped on the bandwagon. Acreage expanded from 600 in 1995 to more than 6,000 today. Over the last two to three years, whether labeled Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, sales have soared to make it the fastest growing white wine in the U.S.

As the number of players expanded, the language about the wine fell into two camps. Some winemakers compared their version to Italian Pinot Grigio, meaning light bodied and quaffable. Other winemakers proudly proclaim in their press releases that their wine, usually named Pinot Gris, was made in "the Alsatian style." To everyone familiar with the Fume Blanc/ Sauvignon Blanc dichotomy, this Italian/Alsatian grouping for Pinot Gris seemed like a natural.

But it is not. Wine writers have been regularly tripping over the terminology. It is amusing to read a critic describing Benesserie's Pinot Grigio as "more reminiscent of an Alsatian Pinot Gris than an Italian Pinot Grigio." To suggest that this lovely wine labeled Pinot Grigio bears little resemblance to Pinot Grigio may confuse more than a few people. Hugh Johnson sees Pinot Gris as a heavy, even thick wine and Alsatian Pinot Gris to him is "unctuous" and a little clunky.

Most of the Pinot Gris that wine writers describe as fitting into "the Alsatian style" of Pinot Gris tend to be finished without residual sugar and also offer something more. More flavor, more oak, more ripeness, more power and, yes, more expensive. However, the Alsatian style wines that I prefer--Etude, Luna, King Estate, J, MacMurray Ranch, Benessere--also have a rich, almost oily texture and earthy-smoky, licorice-anise characteristics.

Since everyone seems to have a personal definition, I decided to go back to the originals and see what the common threads may in fact be between Alsatian Pinot Gris and Pinot Gris made in the "Alsatian style." After all, the Alsatians have been working with Pinot Gris for more than 400 years, which is a solid track record, so I wanted to discover what they had to offer to today's growing throng of Pinot Gris drinkers.

That curiosity led to a week in Alsace in October 2004, definitely not the toughest assignment when it comes to visiting beautiful wine villages and working through the local culinary specialties. It turned out to be the rainiest week in a long time. Harvest-time rain appears to be a regular problem, and though California winemakers would have gone off the deep end under similar circumstances, the Alsatians took it in stride and waited for a dry spell. The vines were so loaded with fruit you thought they might blow over with a slight breeze. But they did not drop their leaves, and the skins showed no signs of water build-up (two indicators of trouble, I was told) so growers waited and were rewarded with a big-but-good vintage in 2004.

By the end of the week, having gained a little girth after making my way through 100 or so Alsatian Pinot Gris wines, I was more confused than before. The styles ranged all over the board, from the rare oaked versions from Ostertag to the bold, swashbuckling extravaganzas from Zind-Humbrecht. But the vast majority is finished with some residual sugar, usually perceptible levels. A few were yucky sweet, but in no case was there any label information to alert you to the sweetness. So, while it is fair to talk about an Alsatian style of Riesling or Gewürztraminer, there is nothing consistent about Alsatian Pinot Gris.

It turns out my visit was timed when Pinot Gris was the center of a controversy within Alsace. Jean Hugel explained that Pinot Gris was once a dry wine, but winemakers gave in to making opulent wines that earn high scores. In his view, "Too many of our producers are aiming for competition-friendly, but not food-friendly wines. For over 40 years, the Germans have looked to Alsace to learn how to make drier wines. Now the situation is reversed and Alsatians would be well-advised to follow the German example."

Jean Trimbach also opposes the residual sugar trend, and relates it to high yields. The yields are so high with Pinot Gris "that growers delay the harvest until the fruit becomes super ripe with or without botrytis." There was a note of despair in his voice when Trimbach concluded our conversation with a plea, "Please let your readers know that there are a few Alsatian wineries left without residual in their wines, which take more time to develop and which are perfect wines to match with food; we call them vins de gastronomie."

Frederick Blanck, speaking for a new generation of winemakers, put the Pinot Gris situation into perspective. "Nobody really knows yet how great Pinot Gris can be. It is a tough variety to grow; with a big crop you get good fruitiness and high acidity, and with a small crop you get great complexity but high alcohol. We are now focusing on canopy management and crop size, and in the future we will strive to make complex Pinot Gris with alcohol around 13.5%." He added, "In the future, we and many others
in Alsace will be making more dry-style Pinot Gris."

If unfamiliar to you, Domaine Paul Blanck is one of the movers and shakers of Alsace, with young winemakers in charge of the family's production. Others in this group are Rene Mure, Marc Tempe, JosMeyer, Bott Freres and Domaines Schlumberger.

Ironically, the explosive market for Pinot Gris in the U.S. may have awakened the slumbering Alsatian giant. Things are changing. By the end of 2006, the only permissible varietal name for wines made in Alsace from Pinot Gris will be Pinot Gris. The oldtimers are being forced to give up the Tokay moniker, but that will align Alsace with the rest of the world.

Also, the bitter internal battle over sweet versus dry wines from Alsace is heading toward some resolution. Recognizing that consumers desperately need a few clues about sweetness levels in Pinot Gris, CIVA (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin d'Alsace) had stepped in to help. As is typical of French bureaucracy, the solution is complex and creates a need for more bureaucrats to oversee it. CIVA has created five categories of sweetness, which eventually will become mandatory on all labels. Some of the back labels of 2004 Pinot Gris already use the list in which each producer checks one of the categories. The categories, which are subject to interpretation, are as follows: Dry (Sec), Tastes Dry (Se goute sec), Balanced (Equilibre), Rich (Puissant) and Sweet (Moelleux).

Though far from perfect, this system should at least sort out the sugary wines that are rich and/or sweet. I suspect if the wine is not totally dry, then the inclination will be to check "Balanced," even when there is some residual. I was also told a similar system will eventually be imposed on all white wines made in the EU countries.

Meanwhile, the Alsatians can now focus on sending more of their deliciously Dry Pinot Gris our way.

(Norm Roby has been writing about wine for 30 years for publications including Wine Spectator and Decanter. Since 1992 he has been director of the Winesong! charity event on the Mendocino Coast. Contact him through
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